The Song of Zechariah found in Luke 1:68-79, are some of the first words the priest uttered upon the birth of his son, John, the cousin of Jesus, the one we know as John the Baptist. Zechariah had been made mute by the angel Gabriel at the start of his wife’s pregnancy because of his fear and disbelief, but when the child was born and Zechariah and Elizabeth named him John as Gabriel had instructed them, his tongue was freed and filled with Holy Spirit John’s father, Zechariah, spoke this prophecy. Listen now for the words he proclaimed.
Zechariah had been silent for the entire duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Silent. He spoke not one word. He didn’t ask how she was feeling. He didn’t wonder aloud with her when the child would come. He also didn’t stick his foot in his mouth asking inappropriately about just how big her stomach would get, so maybe there were some advantages. But Zechariah had been silent the entire pregnancy, unable to speak at home or in the temple.
He had been in the temple some months before when this silence first descended upon him – -or rather knocked him upside the head. He had been in the temple, in the sanctuary of the Lord, alone, offering incense, while the congregation of people praying were just outside when suddenly an angel appeared next to the altar. Zechariah reacted like many people react in Scripture when angels just suddenly appear; he was terrified. “Fear overwhelmed him,” Luke writes. And it didn’t get much better when Gabriel started talking. The angel told him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, [yeah, right], for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” Gabriel goes on to tell him that this will bring Zechariah great joy and gladness, many people will rejoice, and his son will be a prophet with the spirit and power of Elijah.
But I wonder how much of that Zechariah even heard. He was going to have a baby? Well, not him. His wife, Elizabeth, was going to have a baby? Really? Now? After all these years of praying, praying that had probably even ceased by this time, because, frankly, Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. He said some himself when Gabriel’s announcement came to an end. Disbelieving what he was hearing, Zechariah said, “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (He’s so delicate. He knows better than to call a woman ‘old.’) They were old. The years of expecting a child are long gone, so disbelief on top of fear doesn’t sound at all like an unusual response.
Here is just one reason among many that I’m not an angel like Gabriel. Gabriel seemed to expect a little more than I would. I sort of understand the reaction of fear and like to think I’d be pretty compassionate toward Zechariah, but Gabriel seems to hold him to a higher standard. Because Zechariah did not believe the words Gabriel spoke the ability to speak was taken away from Zechariah for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
A priest who can’t talk – it’s like a cruel joke. A man who speaks to God on behalf of others and he can’t even utter, “Good morning” to someone who passes him in the street; he can’t communicate with fellow priests. He can’t chant. He can’t sing the psalms. He certainly can’t pray vocally in the temple. His words are gone from him, and silence is the posture he takes in his fear and disbelief.
Last week I talked about our own relative silence as a community of faith that is majority white. I talked about the silence of the white church in the face of racism in our country – vitriol, prejudice, and violence that has been directed toward people of color for centuries in the past and still today. It’s a silence, I think, born at least in part of fear – –
- Fear of what we don’t know,
- Fear of the other,
- Fear that our well-being or the well-being of our loved ones might be disturbed,
- Fear of change,
- Fear of admitting that we were wrong in the past and not knowing how that makes us accountable in the future,
And even some “well meaning” fears – –
- Fear that we’ll say the wrong thing,
- Fear that we will unintentionally offend someone,
- Fear that when we reach out and our good will might be rejected as too little, too late.
Then this week in the news we were given another reason to be fearful, and many responded just as we might expect. Two more mass shootings took place on the same day, one in Savannah, Georgia the other in San Bernardino, California. Some may not have even heard about the mass shooting in Savannah in which “only” one person was killed and three were injured. There are any number of ways to calculate the results of gun violence. One such definition, that of mass shootings, offered by the website Mass Shooting Tracker, is any event at which four or more people are shot, regardless of whether or not they die from their injuries. The FBI only tracks events in which there are deaths. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker on Wednesday, the 336th day of the year, our nation experienced its 354th and 355th mass shootings of the year. That is more than one shooting in which there are at least 4 victims per day in 2015.
Fear is a completely normal reaction to scary and uncertain situations. Fear in the face of major cultural shifts, fear in reaction to violence makes sense in many ways. The problem isn’t noticing the fear that rises up in us. The problem is when fear is what motivates our reactions, when like Zechariah it overwhelms us. His song, in fact, is a response to even more fear, this time fear among his neighbors when he regains his ability to speak.
When Elizabeth’s child is born, Zechariah having been silent for this many months, everyone had an opinion about what to name the child, as everyone often does. Neighbors thought he should be named Zechariah like his father, but Elizabeth wanted him to be called John, as the angel had directed them. The objections came immediately, “But none of your relatives are John!” Everyone turned to quiet Zechariah who motioned for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John,” and the people were amazed. Then all of a sudden his mouth was opened; his tongue was freed, and immediately he began to praise God. The neighbors’ amazement quickly morphed to fear at this change, this miracle, this inexplicable turn of events.
So Zechariah does what a priest knows to do and with the power of the Holy Spirit filling him, he began to sing, to chant, to speak a word that came to him from God. It’s as if he wanted to stop them before their fear, like his, became overwhelming, before they began to act out of their fear.
He first offers praise to God, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”
He remembers what has happened in the past “He has raised up a might savior for us… He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, has remembered his holy covenant… that we might serve God without fear”
God’s promises that have been in place since the time of Abraham have been kept all this time. From Abraham, to Joseph in Egypt, to Moses, to the judges like Deborah and Gideon, to Kings David and Solomon, good King Josiah. God was faithful in saving the people through the Jewish queen in Persia, Esther, and used a foreign leader to save the people from exile in Babylon and return them to Israel. By varied and creative ways, God rescued God’s people from the hands of their enemies, Zechariah sings, so that they, so that we can serve and live without fear.
Zechariah announces the mission of his own son, a baby who will become a prophet and speak for God and prepare the people for God, so that when the dawn from on high breaks, when God’s mercy can be seen in the person of Jesus, our feet can be guided in the way of peace.
Jesus has come to show us the way of peace that we may walk in it, despite our detours and backwards steps along the way, because our attempts at peace are imperfect. We have a tendency to doubt that God’s way will really bring about change. We tend not to trust that the way of Christ, the way of love and compassion, and radical hospitality is really in our best interest. And as long as the justifications of our reactions to scary events are dominated by words like “teach them a lesson,” “individual protection” and “personal security” we can probably surmise we are operating out of a place of our own fear.
Even though Jesus has come to change the world, we are still afraid of change. Even though Jesus was born to usher in a new day, we are still afraid of giving up our old ways. Even though Jesus promises the faithful love of God, we are still afraid of losing our security. We are still afraid that there isn’t enough to go around – enough money, enough safety, enough love – and so we gather what we need and then some to make sure and we hold on tightly lest someone else take it. We are still afraid that God’s promises aren’t true or may my include us so we better just make sure and take care of ourselves and our own in case God doesn’t come through for us. We are still afraid and the world in which we live gives us plenty of good reasons to be afraid.
Yet we will never walk in the way of peace if we are motivated by our fears. We will never follow in the peaceful steps of Jesus if our reaction to violence is to arm our elementary school teachers and send college students to class with guns. We will never live in health and wholeness if we let fear eat away at our hearts and divide our community.
So what does that mean and what does it look like – to walk in the way of peace, to live in a way that is not overwhelmed by fear.
Well, for me it means re-evaluating the decision I made yesterday to let my 8 year old spend his money on a toy Nerf gun that when it came home looked a lot more like a real gun in his arms than made me comfortable. In our house we’re going to have to talk about guns and for what they are used and the reality of their effects before we continue to “play” with them for fun.
It means for many of us, thinking about the video games we allow in our homes – for children and for adults because studies show that the violent games we play actually change and harm our brains.
It means as citizens and voters, thinking about the policies that are proposed, the legislation that is enacted and the leaders we elect, evaluating the motivation of the laws we have and discerning whether they are driven by fear or promoting peace.
For when we can remember the faithfulness of this God, and live without being motivated by fear, only then we can walk in the way of peace.
The song we will sing at the Lord’s Table today “Come Now, O Prince of Peace” – it’s a song not just of longing, but a song of dedication – a commitment of our own lives to be a part of the way of peace, to follow the one who comes to bring peace, by refusing to be overwhelmed by fear.
When we sing of Jesus asleep in the silent night of his birth, when we wish his sleep to be in heavenly peace, we wish it also for all of the children of the world, we wish it for ourselves, and we are invited to be a part of bringing that peace to this earth in his name. Without fear, may it be so.
Zachariah Russian Orthodox icon
Zacharias and Elizabeth (1493) – work by Hartmann Schedel in the public domain
Angel appearing to Zechariah (1824) – work by Alexandr Ivanov in the public domain